Spare a thought for those fortunate enough to face the agony of choosing a sporting Mercedes-Benz. How do you pick between SLK and CLK?
Sounds easy enough, if you break it down to a decision between two seats or four, roadster versus coupe. But it's not that simple. Choose the supercharged engine in your CLK and the price tags are close enough to be ignored. Next year's CLK cabriolet complicates the decision even further.
Predictably, Mercedes sees the new coupe appealing to different customers. Dieter Zetsche, director of sales at Mercedes, reckons there'll be a maximum 15 percent crossover once the CLK ragtop goes on sale.
He may be right, but the fact remains that Mercedes-Benz now has two ultra- desirable sporting models sourced directly from the C- class. Not that their distinctly individual appearance reveals their donor organs. Today, even Mercedes-Benz talks of a platform policy and the C- class has produced sedan, wagon, coupe, roadster and, next year, convertible. You'll remember the 190 was a four-door sedan only. Times change and so, more than most, does Mercedes.
The CLK is further proof of Mercedes' fast shifting image. Visually, the car is aggressive rather than handsome in the style of earlier, mid-sized, more sedan oriented, Mercedes coupes. Not even the SLK matches the sheer belligerence of the CLK, something photographs fail to communicate. Find a CLK filling your mirror and it's immediately obvious that despite the superficially shared four headlight treatment it's the coupe and not an E-class.
Those separate eyes suggest the CLK is from the E-class family, yet because it's a unique body with a bespoke interior, based on the smaller C-class mechanicals, the CLK deserves to be regarded as a stand-alone model in its own right. The CLK's windscreen rake- four degrees steeper than the C-class - is matched by the angle of the nose. The larger of the headlights, set back from the protruding grille, are smaller than those on the E-class, more vertically oblong and mounted in the taper of the nose on the very comer of the body. They are also lower and integrated into the body coloured bumpers. Especially in darker hues, the CLK looks positively tough, yet is still unmistakably a Mercedes-Benz.
A very coupe profile is helped by the subtle curves of the flanks with their beautifully flared wheel arches, and a blacked out B-pillar, that attempts to create the impression this is a pillarless hardtop and not a coupe. Only the tail is disappointingly bland and out of step with the CLK's otherwise cohesive personality.
It's only when you see the Coupe next to the E-class that you understand just how much smaller it really is, and that the relationship with the C-class becomes clear. In fact, the CLK is 80mm longer than the C-class, though it's built on the same 2690mm wheelbase, and is 228mm shorter than the E-class. Engine-for-engine, the CLK weighs 10kg more than the C-class, 100kg above the smaller SLK, but a significant 125kg less than the equivalent E-class. The CLK shares the same 0.30cd as the C-class, proof that a fast shape isn't necessarily more slippery.
Having decided on the CLK, you're then faced with choosing one of three engines. The entry level CLK is the 2.0 litre 200, expected to sell for around $85,000 when it arrives sometime after the more powerful and expensive versions.
Powered by Mercedes' familiar 100kW in-line dohc four, the 200 is offered with manual or automatic five-speed gearboxes and delivers less than coupe performance with zero to 100km/h in 11 seconds (11.5sec for the auto) and a top speed of 208km/h (205km/h auto).
Next up is the 142kW 230 Kompressor which, like the SLK, is restricted in rhd form to two-pedal driving only. Since the automatic accelerates as quickly as the manual does - Mercedes claims zero to 100km/h in 8.4sec (SLK 7.5sec) - few drivers will complain. The top engine is Mercedes' new 160kW 3.2litre V6, first seen in the E-class (and soon to appear in 2.4 and 2.8 litre forms in the facelifted C-class), tucked into the 320.
It's here that the CLK best defines its role, for the V6 is not destined for the SLK, which is sold out until 2000, until early next century. For now, the range is limited to these three: no 2.4 or 2.8 litre V6. A CLK 430 AMG V8 is planned for 1998 for those who can't afford the V12 CLK GTR but insist upon more spirited performance.
The next decision is Sport or Elegance trim. The Sport, aimed at younger buyers, deletes most of the chrome from the exterior. Inside, the instruments are white and a carbon-look finish is applied to the console, the top of the dashboard and "the doors. There are specific interior colours. Sport buyers can also specify stiffer springs and dampers at no extra cost. The Elegance, expected to cost at least $2000 more, replaces the carbon with burr walnut, uses black gauges and more discreet interior colours.
Both get individual alloy wheel designs while the list of standard equipment seems to grow with every new Mercedes. Traction control (optional on the 200), alloy wheels, leather steering wheel, outside temperature gauge, sound system, automatic door locking on the move, keyless entry with remote boot release, and tinted glass are all included. The CLK 320 adds climate control and cruise control, but for Australia air is likely to be standard with all engines.
Despite the shared mechanicals, the CLK feels different. It couldn't be anything but a Benz, yet it has its own distinctive and alluring character. For this first experience of the CLK we drove the 320 in Sport and Elegance forms. More wieldy, quicker and firmer of ride than an E320 - so far the only other Mercedes to use the bigger of the V6s- they also felt tauter than any C-class, including a C36; and closest in dynamics to an SLK, undoubtedly the CLK's nearest relative.
The V6, far more restful and effortless in its behaviour than the supercharged engine, yet also rather more exciting, gives the CLK 320 the long legs of a proper grand touring car, one that's still capable of sprinting to 100km/h in 7.4sec. To further prove Benz is changing, the throttle lacks the in-built sluggishness in its initial movement that's been a feature of the marque for decades. Tickle the CLK's accelerator, you'll get an instant reaction.
Officially the top speed is 240km/ h, so ton-up cruising can be taken for granted. Wind noise above 160km/h is higher than expected, hardly a concern in Australia.
The source seems to be the exterior mirrors or the single windscreen wiper rather than the frameless door windows.
Yes, the new V6s are super clean, relatively economical, wonderfully smooth, responsive in the mid-range and aurally quite sporting at the upper end, but it's worth pointing out that on this sohc design the valves are no longer driven directly by the cams, but by finger type rocker arms. It also lacks the variable valve timing of the old inline six.
Only the technically pedantic will care. What really matters is how it behaves, and in the CLK the V6's relaxed fluency and its almost seamless relationship with the automatic (except in full kickdown position, when it's surprisingly slow to react) is perfectly complemented by the suspension's ability to mop up all manner of undulations, without this suppleness detracting from a high level of body control. Body roll exists, but it's progressive and consistent, which exactly describes the car's handling. The CLK goes precisely where the driver demands, pushing the nose to gentle understeer on tight comers and resisting any attempt to induce oversteer, even with the ASR traction control system disengaged, via a switch on the dashboard.
Enthusiasts who see the CLK as a sporting coupe will find the steering too heavy and slow. Combine this with a touch of slack at the straight ahead and tum-in doesn't have the precision you might expect. Because it borrows suspension and steering from the C-class, the CLK comes with power assisted recirculating ball steering, not the E-class' rack and pinion. But there's no doubting the CLK's high speed stability or chassis balance, nor the strength of its brakes.
And, fortunately, it feels significantly smaller and more agile than the E-class.